When I asked if I could have 10 days away from work to take part in the Gospel Roads 2 programme (the US equivalent of SOS) and the answer to the question of where it was happening was “Miami”, that was the beginning of many a joke. No-one goes to Miami to do summer camps – it’s all sun, suave and celebrities apparently!!
That may be true down Ocean drive and Star Island way, but up in Lake Worth – things were a bit different. Myself, Bob and Pat had travelled out to Miami, and after finally making it through the traumas and ‘lines’ of US Immigration still smiling (if not through gritted teeth!) we headed out to Key Biscayne with Fredy – our host for the week.
A couple of days in a condo by the ocean was a gentle introduction to what lay ahead. Quickly we were heading up to Lake Worth to take part in a summer camp for children and young people from the Guatemalan Maya community. These are children of families who have fled the civil war or more recently pure poverty and lack of opportunity in their homeland. Florida offers work in landscaping, construction or work with well-to-do families. Seen as the lower class in Guatemala, the acceptance is not much better in the States and they seem to go largely unnoticed: Many are still illegal and they are adept at moving around frequently. Many parents still only speak the Guatemalan indigenous languages and the kids are the ones who translate in either Spanish or English.
The centre was set up to try to create a connection between the Mayan community and the Americans, and the purpose seems to be to keep alive Maya heritage while helping those who use it to adjust to the American way of life.
For 2 weeks of the year there is a summer camp run by a priest, a teacher and past and present students of La Salle (Salesian) high school in Miami. Some of the seniors of the school offer their time to run a week of activities and trips for the young people while incorporating a retreat experience for themselves. They were dedicated, committed and enthusiastic kids! It really is Don Bosco’s work in the 21st century.
Catechesis, prayer, outdoor games, arts and crafts and afternoons out were all part of the day. They even managed to fit in short visits to the kids’ homes – partly to let the kids know that they are more than just a 10-3 job and partly to see the poverty and conditions they live in. The week culminated in the young people producing a show to share with their parents and families.
Having been involved in residential youth work for the last ten years I didn’t think I’d have too much problem. And – once I’d got used to the 95 degrees, the afternoon naps, staying up till 4am planning and preparing, the team getting out of bed as the coach arrived and the American style prayer and sharing (NOT SO MUCH!) – I didn’t really!!!
It really was a different world and way of doing things. Despite my flexibility and adaptability (or so I thought) I’ll quite happily stick to working through till the job’s done, planning an prepping well in advance, being awake and alert to greet groups and getting more than 4 hours sleep. But when in America……..
Almost every single one of the high school kids who have taken part in the Guatemalan summer camp seems to have taken part in a life changing experience; not only in their service to the Guatemalan families they interacted with, but also in their Christian journeys, with an increased understanding of what fellowship and service really means.
So could we do this in Britain? – maybe one day. But we certainly got some ideas for SOS 2 in 2009. We also decided that this particular experience is a unique and one which some of our young people would benefit from and are hoping that a group of four or 5 will be able to participate as group leaders (counsellors) in June 2009.
So maybe there is sun, suave and celebrities but we saw a different side to Miami, and a place where God is very much alive in the youngsters who come to the camp and in the high school seniors who give of their time and energy to serve others in His name.
I was certainly inspired and came away with many a memory of happy smiling kids (both young and old) whose lives had been touched by those they had met that week, by God, and by the spirit of Don Bosco alive today.